Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Legends Club by John Feinstein

With two nonfiction bestsellers sitting on my table, I reached first for John Feinstein's The Legends Club. I'm a fan of his sports books, and I've even read some of his books on golf. But, this time, he covered my favorite basketball conference, the ACC, and three remarkable coaches. The subtitle is: Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Valvano, and an Epic College Basketball Rivalry.

It's the perfect time of year to discuss the three men who coached in North Carolina, bringing one National Championship after another to the state. But, the universities themselves couldn't be more different, and the men who coached the basketball teams couldn't have been more different. Now, only Coach K is left, the one who climbed the highest pinnacle. But, from his earliest days at Duke, and Valvano's days at North Carolina State, they coached in the shadow of Dean Smith at North Carolina. It was his state; he recruited the players from the state; and the newspapers covered and loved his program. But, Feinstein, despite being a Duke graduate, manages to write beautifully about all three coaches.

"In March of 1980, in a nine-day period, Duke hired Mike Krzyzewski and North Caroline State hired Jim Valvano." Krzyewski was thirty-three. He had played and coached under Bobby Knight, coached at Army. At thirty-four, Valvano was coming from Iona. Valvano was instantly a hit with the media. Coach K? Feinstein says, "Every single day he found himself competing against an icon and a rock star."

Feinstein writes a beautiful book about that competition. He takes readers to the games, to the highs of the wins, and the lows of the losses. And, although all three coaches competed on the national stage, their greatest rivals were each other. Feinstein didn't have the chance to interview Valvano or Smith for the book, but over the years covering basketball in North Carolina, he had numerous opportunities to interview both. He interviewed Coach K, and the widows of both of the other coaches, a number of former players and coaches. It's a remarkable basketball book.

Feinstein quotes Keith Drum of the Durham Morning Herald as saying repeatedly, "There's a lot of hate in this league." He was talking about the coaches. But, Smith and Krzyzewski and Valvano found their way to respect. In fact, Krzyzewski and Valvano formed a strong bond after Valvano left coaching, went to ESPN, and then learned he had cancer. The three chapters in which Valvano's cancer is covered made me cry. Everyone who follows college basketball knows the Jimmy V story and his heard his heartbreaking speech at the ESPYs just eight weeks before he died. Jim Valvano comes alive through the words of people who loved him, especially his wife, Pam. And, he comes alive through Feinstein's book.

I could go on forever, quoting stories from The Legends Club. It's the perfect time of year to pick up a book about three remarkable coaches. Do yourself a favor. If you love college basketball, love the rivalries, the coaches and the characters of the sport, try The Legends Club.

John Feinstein's website is www.jfeinsteinbooks.com

The Legends Club: Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Valvano, and an Epic College Basketball Rivalry by John Feinstein. Doubleday. 2016. ISBN 9780385539418 (hardcover), 405p.

FTC Full Disclosure - I bought my copy of the book.

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